Last year, the real-life T.J. Bell unleashed a pair of standout solo EPs, including last month's polished "Making Ends Meet." The promising rapper will perform some of the songs with his band, Cosmos, at Central Saloon next week.
Campana’s not wasting any time. A second after the beat kicks, the nimble emcee pounces on the track, the friendly two-thirds-full crowd at the Sunset rocking with him on every bar as he works each end of the small stage with composure.
“Always get back what you work for / if it ain’t coming to you, need to work more,” he raps at the onset of “Down to Earth,” his forceful opening jab during his middle-card time slot.
It’s a refreshing proclamation in an age when artists half as skilled bemoan being slept on, not to mention a perfect opening salvo for a 24-year-old who’s had his nose to the grindstone since getting a job at 16 to help his single mother with the bills.
“There’s so much to be pessimistic about,” he says, grazing on tacos at a Ballard bar the night before the show. “Might as well try to sprinkle a little light here and there.”
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The Seattle music scene first met the real-life T.J. Bell as the NASA-suited frontman for hip-hop/electro-funk band Cosmos, which out-dueled Parisalexa and Travis Thompson for the 2016 Sound Off! crown. Cosmos has since made its presence felt in various pockets of the local scene, sliding on bills with rappers and rock bands alike, such as night four of All Star Opera’s Seattle World Tour on Jan. 11 at the Central Saloon. (The second annual concert series recruits an eclectic group of local acts for five charity shows benefiting Mary’s Place.) Meanwhile, as a solo artist, Bell’s quietly established himself as one of the more versatile rappers in town, thanks to a steady stream of disparate singles and EPs, including December’s polished “Making Ends Meet.”
A sense of hopefulness and determination rings through his variegated tracks, an ethic (not aesthetic) he credits Mom with instilling in him. Growing up in Bremerton, his mother had him read success-story and aspirational self-help books like “The Magic of Thinking Big,” quizzing him at the end. “My mom’s a hustler,” Bell says. “She raised my brother and I. … Without a doubt, she’s been determined to put us in a good position.”
Four years ago, Bell had his Kanye moment, making the decision to put college on hold to pursue music. It had already been a rough year, as Bell was dealing with a tough breakup and the death of his roommate, close friend and collaborator Nickolas Thee Ruin, when he got word that his financial aid was falling through. As he was trying to figure out how he’d pay for the next quarter — another time suck on top of his full-time bank job — J. Cole dropped his double-platinum “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It felt like an omen.
“Just listening to that album … I could hear the amount of time that he had put into this music,” Bell says. “I was like, maybe this is a sign that I should stop going to college for the time being.”
Since then, Cosmos has earned its Sound Off! title, played another battle of the bands at Prince’s Paisley Park and, last year, Campana delivered two standout solo EPs, starting with last summer’s “The Burner Tape.” The heavier, grittier five-song set marked a departure from Cosmos’ vibrant full-band songs imbued with jazz and electronic elements. Still, it was a stylistic shift he has the bars to back up, almost growling a few of his double entendres on trap anthem “Mundane.”
In contrast, “Making Ends Meet” is more melodic and sonically upbeat, from the gospel-tinged title track to a pair of unguarded breakup songs, including the lovesick “I Know You Can Relate” featuring Seattle’s ascending R&B singer Parisalexa (a frequent Cosmos collaborator). Many of the songs gracing the two EPs were written during the same time period, and while originally intended for the same project, Bell split them into two releases as the divergent styles took shape.
In 2019, Campana plans to continue experimenting with his sound, aiming to make music a full-time endeavor by year’s end. Whatever the future holds for the promising rapper, don’t expect him to lose his drive anytime soon.
“My time is already limited,” Bell says. “So, I can’t not be determined with that little time I do have, because if I’m not, someone else is going to pass me up or I’m going to miss out on that opportunity because I didn’t put the work toward getting where I needed to.”
Cosmos and All Star Opera’s Seattle World Tour night four. 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11; Central Saloon, 207 First St., Seattle; $10; 206-622-0209, centralsaloon.com